The latest item of military travel writing from Afghanistan is from Robert Young Pelton (photo), who spent some weeks in Afghanistan getting to know the work of Human Terrain Teams. The article is titled, “Afghanistan: The New War for Hearts and Minds,” and was published on January 21, 2009, in Men’s Journal. The article must have been completed before the first week of January, since there is no mention of the fact of Paula Loyd’s death, who is reported as injured in the article. There are also some errors, such as labeling Michael Bhatia, the first Human Terrain fatality, as an anthropologist.
In some respects it resembles another first-hand account that was produced by Steve Featherstone for Harper’s Magazine a few months ago, while lacking the same degree of ambiguity and cover for the Human Terrain System (HTS). Pelton’s report, which is not written in the manner of a critique, nonetheless provides some rather unflattering glimpses and some sobering counterpoints to those who endorse HTS with little in the way of reservation. The main theme seems to be that HTS is haphazard work, not even equipped to travel independently to meet Afghans, and staffed by people with dubious qualifications. It is a relatively long piece, and rather than try to summarize it here I will simply reproduce and annotate my favourite extracts from the piece. These are merely notes and quotes, for my own future reference, and not a substitute for the article itself.
Anthropologists as instruments of warfare
I hope to get my first look at America’s latest instrument of warfare: anthropologists.
The idea behind human terrain teams, or HTTs, is to put a small army of civilian social scientists (ideally anthropologists) and intel-savvy military officers into the field to give brigade commanders a better understanding of local dynamics. The teams are charged with “mapping” social structures, linkages, and priorities, just as a recon team might map physical terrain. By talking to locals the teams might help identify which village elder the commander should deal with or which tribe might be a waste of time; which valley should get a roads project and whether a new road might create a dispute between villages. It’s all part of General David Petraeus’s doctrine of a smarter, management-style counterinsurgency.
Steve Fondacaro: Speaking with a broken jaw
[I reproduce this segment mostly for its comical value.]
The man charged with managing the program is retired special operations colonel Steve Fondacaro. He is so passionate about it that when I interviewed him back in the States, he held forth for nine hours straight. Seven hours in, he walked into a door, breaking his jaw, but resumed talking.
Dead HTS researchers: Bad for recruitment
It hasn’t helped Fondacaro’s recruiting efforts that in the past nine months two HTT civilian scientists have been killed on the job, one in Afghanistan, the other in Iraq.
Describing a Human Terrain Team
The press office eventually finds the human terrain team of Task Force Warrior…in a cramped 15-by-25-foot makeshift building. The team’s own terrain is filled with laptops, maps, pens, notebooks, and cluttered desks. The unit consists of one social scientist, three research managers, an IT guy, and three translators, or “terps.”
The scientist, Jim, is easy to identify as he is the one who begs not to his have his photo taken or last name used….He’s a 50-something anthro who worked in Afghanistan two decades ago but seems more preoccupied with the subject of how unique the genetic makeup of Laotians is….
Two of the research managers are reserve officers, and the other is an ex-soldier who served in Kurdish areas of Iraq. Of the two civilian interpreters, one describes himself as “Persian,” which I take to mean that he’s a Shia Iranian-American working in an environment mostly hostile to Shias, and the other, Gulam, is an Afghan mechanic from Colorado who hasn’t been here since he left in the ’70s….
Lieutenant Colonel Eric Rotzoll is the man in charge. He is 5-foot-2 and Buddha-like in demeanor and shape. A former analyst for the CIA, his special skill is that he is fluent in Chinese….
So that’s a Laotian DNA expert, a Chinese speaker, an ex-army grunt, and an auto mechanic.
HTTs do not move on their own
The other thing I quickly size up is that Rotzoll’s team doesn’t have a specific mission or even any vehicles, so they are left to tag along on other missions out of Bagram.
Do the civilian social scientists do the interviews?
From what I’ve gathered so far, when it comes to getting out in the field and talking to locals, the research manager who seems to do much of the heavy lifting is Lieutenant Jeremy Jones. From Indiana….The son of missionaries, Jones went to a lower-tier liberal arts college and got a bachelor’s in history. His last civilian employment was selling weight-loss products and waiting tables at a Cheesecake Factory in Indianapolis….As an army lieutenant Jones makes about $30,000 before danger pay, while a top-tier scientist can make $250,000 a year in the program. Even Gulam, his interpreter, makes four times what Jones does.
Imperial Stormtroopers on a Fuck You Occupation Parade
The armored vehicles lumber and sway up switchbacks and through narrow village streets. The top gunners on the MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, 12 feet high, weighing 20 tons) give alternating fists, waves, or verbal threats to scatter the locals — mostly waving children and indifferent donkey herders. The contrast between our futuristic ride and the mud-village Tatooine-type poverty makes us look like the ultimate Imperial Stormtrooper, made-in-America, million-dollar-a-copy, fuck-you occupation parade.
….air-conditioning from 12 vents blasts us into an arctic stupor. Our only connection to the outside world is through four-inch-thick glass portholes, which add a green tinge.
The Human Terrain does enable the “Kill Chain”:
the dirty secret of “human terrain” mapping. In order to snip the connective tissue between the network of evildoers, someone has to figure out who they are. Whether you snip the web by being nice or nasty is irrelevant. The information Jones and his team collect with good intentions is all part of a massive database that may eventually lead to Paris Hilton (one of the troops) knocking on someone’s door.
A shifting terrain
Any Afghan who has survived to the ripe age of 40, let alone 70, has learned to not only get along with all sides but to play those sides against one another, which is precisely what makes mapping the human terrain here so tricky. It is completely normal for an Afghan to support both the Taliban insurgents coming over from Pakistan and the occupying forces at the same time. These villages will still be here after both groups have long disappeared.
Too late for researchers
“Today we have hundreds of researchers in Afghanistan but with no access. If the social scientists had been here in 2001 they would have a lot more access. Now everyone is interested in the Pashtuns, and the Pashtuns don’t want to talk with the foreigners.”
Social research as part of an elephantine military mission: Obvious contradictions
I ask him if he ever works with the U.S. Army’s human terrain teams. “I try to stay away from them,” he says. Anthropologist Michael Bhatia, the HTT member who was killed by an IED in Afghanistan, was his friend. “I talked to him three weeks before he was blown up. I said, What are you doing, driving around in a Humvee? You can’t be in the military and expect to work with the very people they are attacking.”
I also regularly use the term “occupation” when speaking of the U.S/NATO military mission in Afghanistan, as does Pelton. Yet one of the questions this article raises is what manner of occupation is this? What exactly is being occupied, when foreign forces are rarely able to hold territory for any length of time, and resign themselves to indiscriminately shelling a mountainside to deny territory to the enemy (as Pelton puts it, they were trying to kill a mountain). They exercise a presence, but it’s not clear what they hold. As an imperial mission, and leaving aside the killing of civilians, this mission seems to be more of a gigantic exercise in vandalism, littering, and loitering than actual occupation. I get the sense from reading the article of U.S. forces going through the motions and making a living while there is a job to be had.
*A useful coincidence of articles, see this post: The Afghanistan Scam…